Letter from Birdland: Abuzz with life

Letter from Birdland: Abuzz with life

A few weeks ago, I took my class on a pilgrimage, as I do every semester, to the Student Life Archives. There, we explore artifacts from past students, some objects as old as the university.

Ellen Swain, the archivist, showed us the old apple warehouse in the heart of the building, where the artifacts are stored when people aren't examining them. It is three stories and climate-controlled, to keep the artifacts from degrading.

We have a chance to examine old yearbooks and newspapers, meeting minutes so ancient they were typed on a typewriter.

I found myself explaining what a ditto machine was. I described the clacking rhythm as you cranked the drum, sheets of paper flying off with pale lavender print, the smell that wafted up from our worksheets when the teacher passed them out, the paper still a little damp from the spirits.

We also get to look at non-text artifacts, like dance cards, footballs, megaphones and a letter sweater that looked like it was hand-knit for an unbelievably slender athlete.

All of these help us see what student life was like in the past. It's always fun to go over there, but this was the first time I'd taught in the summer, so I got a special surprise.

Over the past few years, I've noticed a slow transformation in the front yard of the archives building.

The Student Life Archives is housed in the old Horticulture Field Lab. Since it is a couple of miles from my office, I ride my bike out to the archives. The Horticulture Field Lab is near the president's house and set back from the road with a large field in front of it. A few years ago, it was a big empty lawn, and then it became a No Mow Zone.

I've noticed signs around campus that alert us that the lack of mowing is intentional, part of the university's sustainability plan.

When it became a No Mow Zone, I would take my class out in early September and it was full of the usual weeds you expect to see if you simply stop mowing: grass, goldenrod, thistles. I preferred those weeds to the monoculture turf that was there previously, but the end of mowing was only the first step.

Each semester when I visit the archives, I chat a little with Ellen while we wait for my students to arrive. I can't remember which semester I noticed the plantings, but Ellen told me that people were working hard on it.

I've since watched it evolve, but visiting for the first time in the summer semester, I got to see the plot in its full glory. The prairie restoration project still has a lot of work, but right now the field is ablaze in color. Pale pink bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), the deeper pink of purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), the yellows of yellow coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) and golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) and the fire orange of butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) are putting on a lovely show right now, but there are other, less showy, but no less important prairie plants.

Biking out a little early gave me the chance to wander the paths that are cut so we can walk out into the heart of the prairie and get a close-up view. The field is abuzz with life — butterflies, bees and other pollinators. Some stands of plants have markers, identifying both common and scientific names, so walking out there is also an education.

Ellen knows I'm interested in prairie plants, so she put me in touch with John Marlin, who coordinates the work as a volunteer. Last week, I met with John, and Jessica, one of the student workers. They gave me a guided tour of the prairie, and next week I'll tell you about our conversation. But for now, I'll just tell you one of John's main points.

Prairie plants are a beautiful way to landscape. I didn't need convincing, but if you do, stop by the corner of Florida and Orchard in Urbana and take a little walk.

John said that careful walking on the mowed paths is OK, but no motorcycles and no going off trail.

The plantings look lush, but some of the more delicate plants are not yet established. Parking is limited, but you will find metered spaces in front of the archives building (still labeled the "Horticulture Field Lab"). Even if you just drive by, you will be able to see the rich diversity of plants, but do get out and walk if you have time.

I like the idea of a Prairie Archive in front of the Student Life Archives building, to archive the original plants that evolved here, in this soil, alongside our native animals and insects. The Prairie Restoration Project at Florida and Orchard is a physical reminder of our very roots in this land.

Plant in beauty; archive peace; blessed be.

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. She is interested in Prairie Plants. You can read more about Birdland and find links to the Prairie Restoration Project at letterfrombirdland.blogspot.com. Mary can be reached at letterfrombirdland@gmail.com or via snail mail care of this newspaper.

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